– Ben Martens


But First, Pray

Elijah’s school has a charity auction every year. Last year I made coasters with the school logo on them. This year I thought I’d make a sign since those are so popular. I ended up with a sign that says “but first, pray”.

I didn’t want to just make a painted sign. I wanted the words to stand proud of the surface. A laser cutter would be the right tool for the job, but I don’t have one and our maker space is closed while the pandemic rages. I bought a handful of cheap 1/16″ CNC bits assuming that I would break a few of them in the process.

My first attempt was cutting everything out of MDF. That worked ok for the large “pray” word but the smaller individual letters didn’t hold up. The MDF wasn’t strong enough to hold together at that scale. I then made them out of 1/4″ poplar and they worked fine. I sanded and painted everything, but then I realized that I didn’t have a great way to keep those tiny letters stuck on the wood. I was nervous that one little bump might knock some of them off. After trying a few things, I decided to use my Cricut to make a stencil for the individual letters and then I glued on the bigger word.

I finished it off with a keyhole slot on the back so that it could be mounted easily on a wall. The keyhole bit I have is a 1/4″ shank so normally I put a different collet on the router in my router table, carefully measure and align everything and then pray that it all works. This time I realized that I could just stick the keyhole bit into my CNC and manually drive the machine to get the cut exactly right. It was so much easier!

The end result looks pretty simple but it took a ridiculous amount of time, especially when spread into the tiny amounts of free time that I’ve been able to devote to it. Hopefully it raises a few bucks for the school.

College Ski Trip

I heard that my nephew was going on a ski trip with some kids from his school and it reminded me of a college ski trip. In the spirit of writing down stories from my life, I thought this might make a good entry.

I was very much on the fringe of the group that was going. I knew one person well and maybe had seen a couple others in the group of about a dozen or so guys. I had only been skiing a couple times and decided that I’d try snowboarding for the first time.

On the trip up, we were in a caravan of cars and we got pulled over. We weren’t speeding or anything so it was a bit odd, but our driver started crying. Yes. He was crying in a car full of college guys. The officer said he pulled us over because they had reports of a group of guys sticking their heads out of a sunroof. Someone in our car kindly pointed out that our car didn’t have a sunroof and we were on our way. The officer wasn’t wrong though. It was someone from a different car in our group.

The ski event itself was… painful. It was my first time snowboarding and I had zero lessons. I spent most of the day by myself (since I didn’t know anyone and couldn’t keep up) and most of the day was spent falling down. I remember the next week of sitting in those hard desk chairs being pretty painful.

As we were driving back from the ski resort, one of the drivers noticed he was having trouble with his clutch. We were staying at someone’s relative’s house and the dad/uncle/grandpa/whoever showed him how to drive a manual transmission without a clutch by matching RPMs. It was enough for him to make the few hour drive back to Purdue but I wonder what his transmission looked like at the end of that.

The night after skiing, we had a bunch of sleeping bags and air mattresses on the floor of the living room. It was a loud, smelly place to sleep but somehow I still managed to stand out. When we woke up in the morning someone said, “Hey Ben, how did you sleep?” “Fine… why?” Apparently I had been sleep-walking (not an uncommon occurrence for me). I had grabbed a blanket and was holding it over the window yelling about blocking out the aliens. Great.

I can’t imagine doing something like that trip as an adult but when I got back I thought the whole thing was awesome, and I learned a valuable lesson: skiing is better than snowboarding.

Microsoft Include

Microsoft has been making big strides in diversity and inclusion. There have been some amazing conversations happening and these open and honest conversations provide space for asking tough questions. It’s such a difficult topic that touches every area of our lives and comes with a lot of valid and invalid preconceived notions, but the only way we’re going to work through it is by talking about it.

This year Microsoft is going to open some of those conversations up to the public for free. You can register for the Microsoft Include 2021 event which happens on March 17.

I highly encourage you to sign up and listen especially if anything in this post has given you a bad taste in your mouth, if you’ve already dismissed this with a political reaction, if you are afraid to talk about the subject, or if you want to help but don’t know how. We may differ dramatically on how to fix the problems, but gathering together to learn and listen will hopefully shed a new light (or more light) on the situation as it exists today.

COVID-19: Day 342

The infection numbers are finally coming down around us. They’re coming down to the levels we had leading up to Thanksgiving. Those were already high but at least we’re heading in the right direction.

I continue to be impressed with my company’s response to the pandemic. Along with from providing direct aid and support for researchers and leading the way with dashboards to share the facts, now they’re opening up their unused buildings as a vaccination site.

On the home front, Elijah had his second COVID test. I almost wished I had some symptoms so I could at least do it with him. This one was worse because he knew the pain that was coming from the test, but he was a trooper and we survived. The negative test eases our own nerves but it also helps his school to know that there’s nothing to worry about on their end. Thanks to his school’s administration and the cooperation of all the families, there have been zero cases of COVID spread within the school.

It has been awesome to hear from those of you getting your vaccine shots. I now know two people who have received both shots! A new vaccination dashboard from the AI For Health group at Microsoft is fun to watch, at least for first world countries. Washington is lagging behind a bit, but we have 4.1% of the population fully vaccinated and if we keep at this pace we’ll hit 20% by the end of April. My dose is nowhere in sight but I’m happy to stay home while people who need it more get their shots. I’m very interested to watch how the infection rates change as the vaccinations become more prevalent, and I’m also curious about how we’ll get this spread to the rest of the world.

Personally, these last few weeks have been some of the hardest weeks of this whole ordeal. I’ve learned how to handle COVID within my family, as a member of the community, as an employee, and as a parent at Elijah’s school. The major missing piece is that I have not learned how to deal with COVID as a leader in my church. I’ve written and erased a mountain of text here, but it boils down to the fact that I’m a sinner making choices in a sinful world about how to share God’s Word with sinful people. The only perfect decision is to be kneeling before God in prayer receiving forgiveness through Christ.

James 1:2-5 Consider it complete joy, my brothers, whenever you fall into various kinds of trials, because you know that the testing of your faith produces patient endurance. And let patient endurance finish its work, so that you may be mature and complete, not lacking anything. If any one of you lacks wisdom, let him ask God, who gives it to all without reservation and without finding fault, and it will be given to him.

NewsNation Three Month Review

Long time readers of this site will know that I started off listening to a lot of talk radio and repeating the same rants. I eventually decided that wasn’t something I wanted in my life and I almost completely disengaged from the news, only hearing about the most important things through conversations or by reading raw studies and data. Last fall I decided to try a news source again because I was impressed with the approach that NewsNation was taking. Their stated goal was to remove all bias from their news and just present the facts. Lots of places claim to do this but NewsNation laid out a plan that seemed like it could work.

For the first couple weeks, I was surprised at how dry the content was. I could read an article about anything without being led to some kind of emotional response. More than three months in and it’s still something that I flip through every day. I can’t speak for their TV content, but using their app has let me slip through a very divisive news season without getting dragged into either side. The facts of the story are presented and I’m left to decide how to fit them into my own moral framework. They sit in the middle of the spectrum not by arguing both sides or giving equal time but by ignoring both sides and just presenting what happened. And any time they reference a study, Congressional bill, etc, they link directly to it so I can read it myself and get the raw info with full context.

I like to think that their writing style has helped me in my own writings. I’m sucked into a lot of tough conversations for my elder position at church and I think I’m getting better at editing my emails to remove things like inflammatory adjectives, metaphors, and virtue signaling that are really only there to prompt a reaction if I’m being honest with myself.

But in the back of my mind, I always wondered how unbiased NewsNation really was. I’d spot check it myself by taking an article and reading the same thing on multiple sites. It always seemed like NewsNation was in the middle and on the rare occasion that they’d slip up, it was obvious, but still… was I just being manipulated more subtly?

Yesterday, I found the Ad Fontes Media group who analyzes stories from a variety of news sources and ranks them for reliability and bias. You can read more about their methodology on their site, but they produce a giant chart that shows how each news source lands on those scales of reliability and bias. I’ll let you click the link to view it because it seems highly copyrighted, but there were a few interesting observations for me:

  • NewsNation scored high for reliability (45.82) and almost squarely in the middle of the bias range (-0.44).
  • The web versions of MSNBC, CNN and Fox News all scored high in reliability and more centrist in bias than their corresponding TV versions.
  • There are quite a few news sources that scored similarly to NewsNation and I’ll add those to my mental list of alternate sources.
  • As sources get more biased, they almost always get less reliable.

The Ad Fontes Media Facebook post does a good job of covering an extremely important caveat about the “middle”.

On the chart, “Middle” does not mean “best.” Notice that there are sources that are close to the middle yet mid-low scoring vertically, like Daily Mail and Worldtruth.Tv

Middle is also not “most morally correct.”

A source can be in the middle because it is:
a) minimally biased (neutral)
b) centrist (a political position) or
c) balanced (presenting two sides)

The left-right axis is anchored by:
a) contemporary (not timeless)
b) political positions of elected officials
c) in the United States (not worldwide)

Therefore the middle part of the axis represents the middle political positions in the US right now. Not what they should be. What they are.

What’s left, right, and middle shifts over time. Think back to before the Civil Rights Act. One side was for segregation and one side was for integration. One was morally right, and it wasn’t some middle position between segregation and integration.

Also, everyone thinks the middle should be closer to where they are personally.

Being in the middle isn’t always the right place to be on every issue, but I like having my news presented to me cleanly and succinctly. I can take it from there and have opinions about what should be done to improve the situation or even go seek out opinions. But at least I get to read the news without picking a team.

The Drive Through Incident

I enjoy the No Dumb Questions podcast. Destin Sandlin is the rocket loving engineer from Smarter Every Day and Matt Whitman does a show called The Ten Minute Bible Hour. But even if you never watch either of those, this podcast is a fun conversation between two friends who share some similar world view (both Christians) but have very different educational backgrounds and enough differences to keep things exciting.

They’ve had a lot of good episodes, but their most recent one has popped into my head every day since I listened to it. I’ve thought about sharing it with multiple people but in the end, I think it really requires you to just listen to it. The problem is that probably won’t happen, but seriously, I rarely ask something like this. Go listen and if you think it wasted your time, consider me surprised but apologetic. It’s episode #101 and you can skip right to the 13:00 mark. Matt and Destin call their friend George and have him tell a story and the story is worth hearing straight from George. Give it 5 minutes and stop if you’re not hooked. And if you keep going, skip the insanely long commercial between 27:15 and 38:40.

Be fiercely kind.

COVID-19: Day 300

Three hundred days of COVID-19 at least for our family. I remember thinking back in May that we’d be out of it before too long because maybe if we just do the lockdown, it will go away. Nope. The only way it’s going away is with a vaccine and thank you God that it’s rolling out.

We’re eager to get the vaccine but we’ll almost certainly be at the end of the line. It sounds like they’re shooting for 1 million per day. It’s unclear to me if that’s 1 million people getting totally vaccinated or just 1 million doses per day. Everyone needs two doses, but regardless, the math on that means we’re going to be well into next fall before we get a vaccine at the projected pace. There have been plenty of hiccups getting the machine spun up in our country but places like Israel are moving very quickly. They have administered vaccines to 18% of their population! (This data is available from Our World in Data and is a nice visualization of the data.)

I wrote about the increased death rate in the last two posts but I finally found the CDC page that shows weekly deaths from COVID, total deaths, and how the total death number compares with what we’d expect based on previous years. Read the footnotes before drawing conclusions, but it shows that a lot of extra people are dying this year. Some members of our government say the COVID numbers are inflated and maybe that’s true, but something is out there killing a lot of extra people this year.

I mostly succeeded in keeping the pandemic out of my end of year post, but there were a lot of related thoughts that I want to capture and they revolve around being a parent through this situation. What is Elijah learning from it? What do I want him to learn from it? How much of it can he grasp at his age? What will he remember when he looks back on this time? I’ve kind of figured that I’m just bumbling my way through it and not doing a very good job, but when I woke him up on December 31 I said, “Hey buddy! It’s the last day of 2020!” Most other people would have replied with “Good riddance!” but Elijah got very sad and said, “But I don’t want it to be over.” I tried to contain my shock and asked him why and he started listing off good things about the pandemic. We’re home together more. We took interesting family adventures. He didn’t have to share his new toys with anyone. The list went one for a while and ended with “But obviously I don’t like the part about people dying.” What a wonderful answer!

It got me thinking more deeply about the specific lessons I’d like teach him. These are too much for a 7 year old to fully grasp but if these are common themes throughout his time in our house then hopefully they’ll stick.

  • How do we decide what is ok to do and what’s not? The first step is always to read the Bible and see if it has anything to say about the topic. If not then a good principle for the pandemic is “If everyone did this, would we have more or less infections?” Unfortunately many people aren’t answering this one correctly and that leads to the next bullet point.
  • How do I know what information is true? The Media Wise project has lots of good information but the basics I try to repeat are looking at the raw data, respecting the experts, and reading conflicting opinions. “Don’t believe everything on the internet.” Along with that comes being willing to change your mind when confronted with better information.
  • What if someone says something I don’t think is true? What if they have authority over me? God tells us in 1 John 4 that we’re supposed to test everything we hear to compare it to what the Bible says. If Pastor preaches something that doesn’t line up with the Bible, it’s my job as an elder to confront him and ask him about it. The same applies to everything we read on the internet or hear, even from those in positions of authority.
  • Why is everyone else doing X but we aren’t? This was a big one for us even before the pandemic, but the answer is the same. “Be in the world but not of the world.” That’s not a direct quote from the Bible but it comes from John 15:19 and John 17:14-16. We’re part of society but this sinful world is not our home. Thanks to our redemption through Christ, we don’t belong here. So feeling different or left out is just one of the many tricks the devil will use to try to keep us from heaven.

When asked about 2020, Bill Gates said, “This is a communications exercise. So far, the U.S. doesn’t get a very high grade.” We took science and made it political and the parties twisted the facts to meet their agendas. Hopefully we’ll do better in 2021, but ultimately I’m hopeful that we’re training our children to be better at this then we were.

John 14:14-16 14 I have given them your word. The world hated them, because they are not of the world, just as I am not of the world. 15 I am not asking that you take them out of the world, but that you protect them from the Evil One. 16 They are not of the world, just as I am not of the world.

For the Beauty of the Earth

Here’s one I recorded a while back, but in the Lutheran church we generally use this tune in the season of epiphany and call it “As With Gladness Men Of Old”.

In Jon Schmidt’s recording, he has a beautiful cello playing along with it. So in addition to my normal piano-only recording, I also messed around with digital instruments and added in a cello. There’s no video for this but you can hear me playing along with my digital cello attempt. I played that cello line on my piano, recorded the MIDI file for it and then ran it through this program to make it sound like a cello.

I used Bandlab with a free cello VST plugin so it’s all free and doesn’t sound amazing, but it was such an interesting rabbit hole to dive into. For example, check out the Embertone digital instruments and listen to some of those cello samples! Some day I would love to get a really nice piano file and make my piano sound even better.

2020 Year in Review

Some years I start off this “year in review” post and wonder what I’ll say. This year I start it off wondering how I can write it without diving into all the emotions around the global pandemic that knocked us upside the head. In the beginning, we didn’t know what the virus was, how deadly it was, how it spread, or what preventative measures helped. Much of that got figured out but then it became a communication problem. A vaccine was created unbelievably quickly and it looks like the light at the end of the tunnel but there’s still a lot of tunnel left. It feels like the next couple months could be horribly bad with the spike from people celebrating Christmas and all the other factors that are already contributing to the body count. And there we go, it only took a few sentences and I’m getting sucked in. I’ll leave the wrapup of that stuff to Bill Gates who wrote an excellent post about things to be hopeful for in 2021 and what we can learn from 2020.

Let’s back up a bit. Back in February, I had an amazing adventure (business trip) to Israel. The main purpose was to visit a team that I work with closely and spend time on their turf. That created some strong relationships and partnerships that have been incredibly useful and enjoyable. But beyond that, it was my first time really being out of the country (not counting Canada and Caribbean cruises). On top of that, I got to spend a day walking around Jerusalem. That day plays through my mind on a regular basis. I want to go back and see more of the Biblical sites. While we know the city has changed a lot since Bible times, it’s a lot closer than anything I see around Woodinville. It’s neat to read the Bible with those pictures in my head.

That trip was happening just as the first COVID cases were hitting our area and the first Paris case happened on the day we flew through. On the flight from JFK to Seattle, I sat next to a guy wearing a mask, coughing like mad and downing prescription meds. At the time I thought, “Eh oh well, who knows what he has but hopefully I won’t get it.” Now that situation is the stuff of nightmares!

Work has been very good to me. We were one of the first companies to send everyone home and we’ll be one of the last ones back in the office (current estimate is July 2021.) It took a while to adjust to this but I think a lot of us are realizing that it’s pretty great. I don’t spend ~1.5 hours a day sitting in traffic, I save money on gas and I get to spend more time with my family. Now I wake up and wonder why I’m living in a subdivision when I could be doing this job from anywhere with high speed internet. It’s hard to imagine moving and starting over on all the home improvement projects but it’s getting more and more tempting to move somewhere with a little more land whether that’s 5 acres around here or 50 acres in Montana or Wyoming.

Elijah’s school closed down pretty shortly after I started working from home. Thank goodness that Tyla is a trained teacher because she did a great (and difficult) job helping him to finish off first grade. Schooling from home is going to change the scholastic course of a lot of kids, but for Elijah, so far I’d say that it has been a good thing. We put a strong focus on reading and kudos to him because his reading skill level has skyrocketed. Second grade has been mostly in person with lots of rules to avoid spreading COVID and all that extra reading work has been paying off. He loves math and with his solid reading skills, the other classes are going smoothly too.

The lockdown wiped our calendar clean but we tried to fill it up with more family activities. Here’s at least a partial list of the parks that we visited: Langus Riverfront Park, Tahoma National Cemetery, Brickyard Road Park, Lake Easton State Park, Kanaskat-Palmer State Park, Saint Edward State Park, 60 Acres Park, Flaming Geyser Park, Hyak Sno-Park, Marina Beach Park, Lord Hill Park, Seaquest State Park, Rasar State Park, Deception Pass State Park. Many of those were in the rain or very early in the morning to avoid crowds but it was fun to explore. We even got in a couple camping trips.

Early on in the lockdown, I struggled listening to the internetz talk about how bored they were and how they couldn’t find anything to fill their time. I dream of empty time that I can fill with hobbies like woodworking but even with cutting out my commute time, I felt stretched very thin. Work was extremely busy as we worked hard to find extra capacity for everyone who was ramping up their online presence and also provide extra support for all the research teams who were fighting the virus. Before the lockdown hit, I made some coasters for Elijah’s school fundraiser, but the major project was the chest of drawers. That took me an enormous amount of time and it’s still not quite done because I’m working on smell issues with the finish that I used, but I’m happy to be moving on to other projects.

My time has also been filled up with a lot of work for church. Pastor, the organists and I have been working together to pump out online church services every week. I had intended to learn Davinci Resolve to step up my editing game so when these church services popped up, I dove in. It was a very steep learning curve but I’m so glad that I learned it. Pastor and I have been having some editing fun with a few of the children’s sermons like the one on Pentecost when I made a flame appear over his head.

As an elder, I was (and still am) involved in a lot of difficult discussions about whether we should be having in-person services or not. Amidst all that, I tried to really pump up our online offerings beyond just the online services. We started doing member spotlights, sharing pumpkin carvings, posting Christmas music played by members, etc. I pray that it will play some small part in keeping our members close to God’s Word and that when we’ve able to safely worship together again, the church will be full.

One of the other changes from this year just climbed up the curtain: we got two cats! Tyla and I have spent years chatting about whether or not to get a pet and what kind of pet to get and we finally pulled decided to get two cats. We adopted them from a shelter in Stanwood and they have filled our house with joy and snuggles ever since.

So yes, it’s easy to focus on the negatives from this year, but hitting reset on our entire calendar had a lot of benefits to it too. My hope is that as we look back on this year, we’ll remember a lot of fun family times and how we got through it together.

Previous Year In Review Posts: 2003200420052006200720082009201020112012201320142015201620172018, 2019

Office Supply Organizers

We have a cabinet upstairs that we call the office supply cabinet. It was a mess but it had batteries, printer paper, printer ink, tape, and a whole bunch of other things in it. When I finished the dresser project, I tackled three quick organization builds in order. They were built out of scrap wood and aren’t much to look at but I get a smile on my face every time I need to grab something from that area!